As the Clinton administration steps up its efforts to prepare Americans for possible military action against Iraq, it has been unable to assemble the broad international coalition that supported the Persian Gulf War in 1991.
After a meeting with the Joint Chiefs of Staff Tuesday, President Clinton will speak about Iraq to a military audience at the Pentagon - and to a television audience nationwide, said a White House official who asked not to be identified.
The official said the appearance - the president’s first devoted solely to the possibility of military action in the Middle East - is part of the administration’s campaign to prepare the public for conflict and for the casualties, both allied and Iraqi, that could result from a major air campaign.
So far, public opinion surveys have found wide-spread support for new air strikes against suspected military targets in Iraq.
But other administration officials, speaking anonymously, said they are unsure how well public and congressional support would hold up in the face of American or Iraqi civilian casualties, unintentional damage to civilian buildings, or the spectacle of downed American or British fliers being paraded through Iraqi towns.
Overseas, the administration’s coalition-building efforts have had mixed results. President Clinton Saturday won Danish support for military action Saturday after speaking to that country’s prime minister. But in the Arab world, demonstrations in support of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein continue.
Russia and China, both members of the United Nations Security Council that did not oppose Operation Desert Storm seven years ago, continue to reject the use of force this time. France, which sent forces to the Persian Gulf in 1991, opposes military action now.
The United States’ chief delegate to the United Nations Bill Richardson came away empty-handed from four hours of meetings Saturday with senior Chinese leaders, who continue to oppose U.S. air strikes against Iraq.
China remains firm in denouncing a U.S.-led plan to attack Iraq because of Baghdad’s refusal to allow U.N. inspectors unfettered access to all sites where Iraq is suspected to be making or storing chemical or biological weapons.
“If force is used, it will inevitably cause serious consequences and significant casualty of innocent people and will not contribute to a solution to the question over weapons inspections,” said Chinese Foreign Minister Qian Qichen after his meeting Saturday with Richardson.
Richardson said the United States and China agree on the gravity of the current U.N. standoff with Iraq but differ on what to do next.
China has played a more visible diplomatic role in this conflict with Iraq. Before the Gulf War, China abstained from a Security Council vote on military action against Iraq. But this time around, Chinese leaders have not muted their objections to U.S. threats of an air attack.
On Feb. 12, Chinese Premier Li Peng openly rejected the use of force, saying Iraq has legitimate sovereignty concerns that must be respected.
That same day, the Communist Party-controlled People’s Daily ran a column asking, “What does the United States really want to do? … It seems that the United States cannot explain clearly, does not think clearly, nor does it calculate clearly.”
Richardson repeated that the United States would want to negotiate a peaceful end to the current standoff, but said diplomatic efforts, at this point, are on “life supports.”
“I did not come here to try to get China’s support for air strikes,” Richardson added. “The president has not made that decision. I came here to share our policy views and to agree on some basic principles.”
Richardson said he turned over to Chinese diplomats documentation detailing Iraq’s continued production of weapons of mass destruction.
He dismissed as “superfluous” an Iraqi offer to allow a team of non-U.N. arms inspectors to examine eight suspected weapons sites in 60 days.
“It’s an offer that creates more problems,” Richardson said. “It is preposterous to think how experts could conduct an effective inspection. You can imagine how useless a one-time or 60-day inspection limit would be.”
Richardson thought the tone of his meeting with Chinese officials was good and dismissed suggestions that the disagreement over Iraq would strain slowly improving relations.
“The Chinese and United States have a common approach on the extent of the problem, the seriousness of the problems and the solutions to the problems,” Richardson said. “It’s the means to achieve that solution that there are some tactical differences.”
The dispute over a diplomatic solution could be brought to a head by a last-ditch U.N. mission that is going to Iraq to map eight presidential sites that Iraq has declared off-limits to U.N. inspectors, but which are suspected of harboring chemical or biological weapons or the means to make or deliver them.
Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov, an outspoken opponent of military action against Iraq, is urging U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan to accompany the mission. If Annan agrees and persuades Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein to back down and allow unlimited access to all suspected weapons sites, an attack can still be averted, said a senior administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
But if Annan goes to Baghdad and gains nothing, military action is probably inevitable “in the relatively near future,” the official said. He refused to be more precise.
The worst outcome, from the administration’s point of view, is if the U.N. team returns with an Iraqi offer for limited inspections that China, Russia, France and some Arab nations find acceptable but which the United States, Britain and their allies reject. The best way to avoid the danger of such a split, the official said, is to make sure Annan understands what the United States will and will not accept before he goes.
Sen. Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat who accompanied Defense Secretary William Cohen on a swing through the Persian Gulf last week, said Saturday that he believes military action is “likely” because Saddam is miscalculating and does not understand that he must obey U.N. resolutions.
xxxx LATEST DEVELOPMENTS Bill Richardson, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, met with Chinese officials but appeared to have failed to gain Beijing’s support for a military strike. U.S. Navy pilots from the USS Independence flew over southern Iraq and practiced targeting areas to strike. State Department advised Americans to avoid travel to Palestinian-controlled areas, where pro-Iraq demonstrations have been regular. U.S. supply ship Pvt. Franklin J. Phillips arrived at the Suez Canal, en route to the Persian Gulf. Iraq’s foreign minister emphasized the need for a diplomatic solution and accused Washington of trying to prolong punishing trade sanctions. Apparently trying to firm up backing in the Arab world, Iraq released more Egyptian prisoners under a general amnesty for foreign Arab convicts. Britain warned against a diplomatic compromise that would leave Iraq with an arsenal.